Tough task awaits Leinster as Castres wait in the long grass

French champions’ home form augers well for durable outfit to continue punching above weight

Castres players cheer in front of supporters on June 2, 2013, at the Pierre-Antoine stadium in Castres, during a celebration of Castres’ victory over Toulon in the Top 14 rugby final at the Stade de France in Paris the previous day. Photograph:  Remy Gabalda/AFP/Getty Images

Castres players cheer in front of supporters on June 2, 2013, at the Pierre-Antoine stadium in Castres, during a celebration of Castres’ victory over Toulon in the Top 14 rugby final at the Stade de France in Paris the previous day. Photograph: Remy Gabalda/AFP/Getty Images

 

Whatever about Greeks bearing gifts, Irish teams and others have long since learned to beware of French teams supposedly cocking a snoot at the Heineken Cup.

At face value, word that the injured Castres duo of Antonie Claassen and scrumhalf Rory Kockott will not be playing against Leinster appears an encouraging sign for Matt O’Connor’s team in advance of Sunday’s visit, but there are countless reasons for believing the home side are lurking in the long grass.

Aside from scalping Munster on three occasions on French soil, Munster emerged from the Stade Pierre-Antoine with a last-gasp 27-24 win courtesy of a late drop goal by Ronan O’Gara two seasons ago, and even though Castres were out of contention in the final round last season still extended Ulster to a nervy 9-8 win.

Even the more experienced core of Leinster players can refer their team-mates to the December back-to-back pool matches of five years ago, when despite winning the first match 33-3 in Dublin, Leinster were mugged 18-15 in the Stade Pierre-Antoine the following Friday night.

What’s more, Castres have beaten both of the other sides in the pool, Northampton and the Ospreys, so are not entirely out of contention. Aside from wanting revenge for a somewhat unlucky 19-7 defeat at the RDS in October, the French side will be defending a proud unbeaten home record of 18 matches dating all the way back to their defeat to Toulouse in December 2012.

Castres, the defending French champions, have won eight and drawn one of their nine home games in the Top 14 this season, scoring 29 tries and registering five attacking bonus points, while conceding a mere four.


Solid home form
Given they have only played seven games away, winning in Montpellier at the end of November and losing the other six, they possibly stand in a slightly false position of third in the Top 14, thereby accumulating 39 of 46 points at home. Nevertheless, their home form brooks little argument that they remain a force in French rugby.

This looked to be in some jeopardy at the end of last season, despite winning their fourth bouclier du brennus courtesy of a fantastic defensive display when beating Toulon 19-14 in the final after overcoming Clermont in the semi-finals. Situated in Midi-Pyrénées in southern France, in the former French province of Languedoc, about an hour from their big brother of Toulouse, and with a population of 41,000, Castres has always punched above its weight.

Ever-presents in the top flight since winning promotion in 2001, Castres had fallen on hard times until Pierre Fabre, the founder of a local pharmaceutical company based between Castres and Albi, took over the club in 1988. Poignantly, he died in July, barely a month after his club’s triumph in the final, but had taken steps to preserve the club’s future with the creation of the Pierre Fabre Foundation.

So it is that the foundation will donate an estimated €10 million per annum to local arts and sports, with long-established heir, Pierre-Yves Revol, apparently like a son to Fabre, groomed to take over. Hence he resigned after serving four years as President of the LNR in readiness for the role, and he is now the president of Castres Olympique and the Pierre Fabre Foundation.

Further upheaval came by way of losing the coaching duo who had taken them to the title, Laurent Travers and Laurent Labit being lured to Racing Metro by Jacky Lorenzetti. Castres turned to Serge Milhas and David Darricarrere, who had previously taken La Rochelle into the Top 14 from the ProD2 with an exciting brand of rugby before briefly, if a little unsuccessfully, going their separate ways with Biarritz and Agen before being reunited.

The pair have seamlessly assumed the mantle, and while retaining their potent scrum and maul, along with a well-organised defence, Castres have added more of an off-loading dimension and cutting edge to their game. Consequently, their playmaker, Rémi Talès, has become the French outhalf and they retain the club’s eye for a bargain, with goal-kicking winger-cum-fullback Geoffrey Palis one of the uncapped players in the French Six Nations squad just six months after signing from Albi. However, the sprained thumb he sustained in last week’s win over Bordeaux makes him doubtful for the Leinster game.


Returning players
Former Ulster number eight Pedrie Wannenburg (thigh), who has made little impact at the club, is also doubtful. Against that, the injured Mathieu Bonello, Brice Mach, Mike Coetzee and Romain Martial resumed training this week and Saimone Taumoepeau is also expected to return.

There are rumours that Classen is bound for Racing and that Kockott has signed a pre-contract with Toulon. Yet with the Fabre Foundation, their new coaching duo and their Pierre-Antoine fortress all remaining intact, Castres appear well set to continue punching above their weight.

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